LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — This place marks a stage that Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis has never stepped on yet.
Sure, Davis has spent the past 2½ weeks adjusting to playing basketball for the first time since the NBA suspended the season in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Davis also has spent that time becoming more familiar with competing in arenas without any fans. When the top-seeded Lakers (52-19) play the Portland Trail Blazers (35-39) on Tuesday in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, however, Davis will experience something much different than what he encountered in two postseason appearances with the New Orleans Pelicans (2015, 2018).
"In New Orleans, most of the time we were the underdogs. Here, we’re the favorite," Davis said. "That’s the biggest difference. I think the target will be a lot bigger."
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Davis expected that ever since the Lakers acquired him last summer from New Orleans in exchange for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and a handful of draft picks. When in NBA history hasn’t a Lakers star felt added pressure to live up to the franchise’s purple-and-gold standard? Davis has encountered a different layer of pressure, however, amid his quest to deliver the Lakers’ 17th NBA championship, their first since 2010 and the first of his own NBA career.
Some in NBA circles have given the Blazers a legitimate shot at upsetting the Lakers. Some of that points to Portland’s entertaining 7-2 run during the season restart and play-in. Some of that also points to Damian Lillard’s scoring mentality and leadership. As Davis said, "he’s balling right now; he’s hot; he’s doing whatever he’s doing to make his team win."
Yet, those in NBA circles also see a potential upset because of the Lakers’ 3-5 record during the restart. Plenty of that stems from prioritizing health over results and showing some apathy since their top seed remained secure. The Lakers’ sluggishness also points to Davis, who offered a Jekyll and Hyde identity of dominance and passiveness against opponents’ swarming defenses.
"Teams are trying to double me, and that’s fine," Davis said. "It’s about making the right plays out of the double-teams and making sure I’m making the right plays for myself and others."
Anthony Davis enters the playoffs averaging 26.1 points on 50.3% shooting this season. (Photo: Kevin C. Cox, Pool photo via USA TODAY Sports)
It became hard to measure when Davis would do that. After scoring 34 points on 8-of-19 shooting against the Clippers, Davis followed up with 14 points on a 2-of-7 clip against Toronto. He showed more aggressiveness against Utah (42 points on 13-of-28 shooting), only to become ineffective against Oklahoma City (nine points on 3-of-11 shooting). A similar story happened against Indiana (eight points on 3-of-14 shooting) before rebounding against Denver (27 points on 9-of-15 shooting). Those performances seemed perplexing after Davis remained consistent before the NBA suspended play when he logged 29 double-doubles and five 40-point performances.
So what gives? Well, it is hard to ignore one obvious trend. After shooting 48.5% from the field before the shutdown, the Lakers have since shot 43.8% from the field during the restart. While some of that traces back to Davis’ numbers, it also reflects his teammates’ failure to hit open shots after Davis drew a double-team. In turn, opponents did not feel as regretful mostly worrying about Davis.
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"He gained the respect of the opponents that we were facing and got a lot of double-teams and we got better throughout the bubble at attacking those double-teams and making teams pay," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. "It’s more about the people around him than what he’s doing. He’s doing the right thing. He’s taking care of the basketball and delivering the ball to the open man. But our spacing needed to improve."
Vogel observed that the Lakers have improved their spacing in recent practices. Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope vowed that he and other shooters will become better prepared to make shots so that Davis and LeBron James do not feel as burdened. Those adjustments only go so far, though.
As much as the Lakers have struggled with their 3-point shooting during the season restart (30.3%), that does not drastically differ from how they fared from deep before the NBA halted the season (31.4%). Those numbers did not influence Davis’ level of dominance beforehand. He just relied on his own skills and his chemistry with James to offset the difference.
"It’s playoff time, teams are going to lock in and make adjustments. But we’re going to lock in as well," Davis said. "It’s about me being more aggressive now."
How Davis does that could largely influence the series outcome. Yes, some of that also hinges on James increasing his intensity once the games count. And given his proven track record during three NBA title runs, there's no reason to think James won’t do that again. Will that be enough, though?
Maybe not. Without Avery Bradley and uncertain when Rajon Rondo will return from a right thumb injury, the Lakers don’t have anyone that can disrupt the Trail Blazers’ backcourt of Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Unlike when Davis averaged 32 points on 55.9% shooting against Portland in three games this season, the Blazers have a healthy forward who can at least slow things down in Jusuf Nurkic. But the Lakers gave up their young core to acquire Davis for a reason. He remains plenty capable of matching up against Nurkic, as well as any other defender that doubles him for a simple reason: Davis remains one of the NBA's most dominant players.
So after Davis failed to show that dominance in the Lakers’ loss to Indiana, he and James worked out together. Davis simply became tired of the sluggish performances and "just wanted to see the ball go through the rim." With Davis considering himself his own "biggest critic," James offered positive reinforcement about "knowing it’s a marathon."
The Lakers are at the last leg of that long race. Now, Davis will show if he can thrive through the largest amount of pressure he will face in his NBA career.
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